- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2012

As gas prices rise and President Obama faces growing criticism from the right on his energy policies, he aggressively — and at times angrily — defended his drilling and clean-energy record at a speech Thursday.

Mr. Obama said his administration has opened large swaths of land to oil and gas production and said U.S. oil production last year reached its highest level in eight years.

“So we’re focused on production — that’s not the issue,” he said.

The increased gas prices, he said, instead are a “painful reminder” of why the U.S. must develop alternative energy sources, and he assailed Republican critics for trying to score political points rather than help the country stem its dependence on foreign oil.

“You can bet that since it’s an election year, they’re already dusting off their three-point plans for $2 gas,” Mr. Obama said without mentioning Republicans by name during his speech in Coral Gables, Fla.

The average price for gasoline at the pump has risen to its highest point for this time of year — to $3.61 a gallon, according to AAA data. The average price in Florida, a critical swing state in the upcoming presidential election, is 9 cents higher.

Instability in the Middle East, most notably in Iran, is responsible for the most recent spike in oil prices, not the amount of oil drilled in the U.S., Mr. Obama said. Tense relations between the U.S. and Iran over its nuclear program have spurred “speculative trading on Wall Street” that have pushed oil prices higher.

Worldwide demand for oil likely will increase dramatically in the years to come, Mr. Obama said, noting that in just the past five years the number of cars in China has tripled. Rapid growth in such large-population developing countries as China, India and Brazil will only spur greater demand over the long term.

“That means that anybody who tells you we can drill our way out of this problem doesn’t know what they’re talking about or isn’t telling you the truth,” he told students at the University of Miami after touring an industrial machine lab at the school.

Mr. Obama also said higher prices at the pump justify his case for ending tax breaks for oil and natural-gas companies. A corporate tax plan the president released Wednesday calls for ending the subsidies while boosting tax incentives for clean-energy production.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said he doesn’t think anyone could show him how raising taxes on energy companies would lower gas prices.

“But since nobody can, and the president doesn’t, this is merely an attempt to deflect from his failed policies,” Mr. McConnell said.

Republicans have fumed for months over Mr. Obama’s refusing to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a project estimated to create 20,000 jobs, and previously denounced his decision to place a moratorium on offshore drilling in response to the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Facing an election, the President would like everyone to forget that gas prices have doubled over the past three years while he consistently blocked and slowed the production of American-made energy. From his drilling moratorium to his denial of the Keystone pipeline, the President has time and again sided with his liberal base over American families,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, on Thursday.

In Wednesday night’s GOP presidential debate in Arizona, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich claimed that increased drilling could lower gas prices to $2.50 a gallon.

The House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Doc Hastings, Washington state Republican, released bullet points rebutting Mr. Obama’s claims that his administration is responsible for increased energy production and underscoring the president’s decision to block energy production on federal lands.

There was a significant increase in private drilling on state and private land in North Dakota last year, areas not subject to federal restrictions his administration has imposed, according to the committee.

“President Obama is trying to take credit for previous President Clinton’s and President Bush’s pro-energy policies,” the memo stated. “The president is also failing to mention that the vast majority of increased production is occurring on private lands, not public.”

Thursday’s Florida trip is Mr. Obama’s 14th journey to the Sunshine State since taking office. Along with the energy speech, the president planned to attend two afternoon fundraisers in the Miami area — one at the Biltmore Hotel and one at a private residence.

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